Herriges Rezoned: A Suburban Poverty Boomtown – Lehigh Acres, Florida

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This is prime real estate. It’s near the waterfront and some of the country’s nicest beaches. It’s close to downtown, accessible to established job centers and transportation corridors. What else do we notice about it? It’s extremely low-density, and consists almost exclusively of single-family detached homes.

This is not the work of market forces. You think the gardeners, roofers, janitors, nannies of Fort Myers wouldn’t like to live closer to the beach if there were more safe, affordable apartment complexes for them to move into? There aren’t, and this is by design. Single-family zoning, density caps, minimum lot sizes, minimum setbacks: These are pervasive policy tools expressly intended to exclude the poor from the communities of the middle and upper classes.

This has been true since such residential zoning’s 1926 origins in the Cleveland suburb of Euclid, Ohio, upheld in a Supreme Court opinion which included the observation, “In such sections, very often the apartment house is a mere parasite, constructed in order to take advantage of the open spaces and attractive surroundings created by the residential character of the district.”

Lehigh Acres exists because Fort Myers created it. Because those of means walled themselves off in subdivisions and said to the service workers who support their lifestyle, “Go find somewhere else to live. Not here.”

Victorville, California exists because Los Angeles created the Inland Empire, and when the Inland Empire filled up (because it, too, is almost exclusively low-density subdivisions of single-family detached homes, albeit not upscale ones) it created Victorville to house those further displaced.

Same story, different city.

What Can Lehigh Acres Do?

None of this systemic analysis, of course, helps the people living in Lehigh Acres now, whether they would like to leave or they consider it home and want to stay forever. None of it makes the place less dysfunctional for those households that can’t afford multiple cars, or are struggling in other areas because of the cost of driving and maintaining those cars. None of it provides the legions of teenagers walking on the side of the road a safe way home from school. None of it helps the disabled, the elderly, or the recently or chronically unemployed, access the social services they need. None of it helps someone whose mortgage is underwater.

None of it will help any of the property owners in Lehigh Acres when the miles upon endless miles of roads crumble and there’s not nearly enough money to repair them. Because there won’t be. (Want to shake your head sadly? Check out Lee County’s helpful “How Do I Get My Road Paved?” guide for residents. It seems the short answer is “You don’t.”)

There are, I think, strategies that can help a place like Lehigh Acres—and they’re not dissimilar to the ones that have been proposed for the hollowed-out, blighted sections of cities like Detroit. This topic is huge and warrants its own entire post, so I plan to write a follow-up in the future about what we can do with a place like Lehigh Acres, given that it exists and many, many people live there who aren’t going to pack up and move.

In the meantime, it’s important to shine a light on the destructive fallout of America’s radical late-20th-century experiments with automobile-oriented development and zoning as a tool of socioeconomic exclusion. Its outcome, at its most extreme, is Lehigh Acres. A disposable place for post-industrial capitalism’s disposable people.

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